A man lounged under an oak tree by the side of the road. He was tall, well built and tanned, his fair hair pulled into a pigtail behind his neck. Even a casual observer could guess he was a sailor. The gorse and the flowering broom glowed in the sun. A soft breeze made ripples in the rich green grass and birds sang above a sandy track weaving its lazy way over the land. The world seemed still.
James McNair enjoyed the scene and recalled his childhood in the farm just down the hill. The twelve years of service had not wiped the memory from his mind. He sat with his back to a tree and reflected. The Navy did not need him anymore. All he possessed was the ‘Thanks of the Nation’ and half pay for a year.
‘You leave with my gratitude and respect,’ said the Admiral, ‘and I wish you joy and good health in your new life.’
So he came home with nothing to show but a worn uniform and a sword, but he remained in good spirits.
He drowsed in the soft air and would have fallen asleep except for the sound of galloping hooves approaching. Where he sat in the shade, bushes concealed him from the road.
‘This’ll do.’ A loud voice gave the command as a horse plunged to a halt within a few yards of James. He couldn’t see the rider and he heard another horseman pull up nearby.
Through the screen of shrubbery, he saw the second man. He wore a slouch hat which covered his brow and concealed most of his face. His nose was long and he wore a beard. His jerkin was a leather military coat, faded with age, the epaulettes and badges cut away. His boots were high over the knee in the style of a cavalry soldier.
‘Check your pistols,’ said the mystery rider, ‘one shot is never enough.’
He could hear both men working at their weapons and crept forward to catch a sight of the first man. Still astride his horse, the man bent over to make adjustments. His tricorn hat was foreign with traces of some braid upon it. A sallow-skinned man, his hair hung down on each side of his face like the wings of a dark bird.
The second man spoke. ‘How will we know if it’s him?’
‘Leave that to me,’ said the sallow man, grinning. ‘If some yokel comes clumping this way at the wrong time, we’ll get rid of him.’
The two men remained mounted but moved to a spot on the far side of the road where the bushes were thickest. Their purpose was obvious and James decided he had to do something. He loosened his sword from his pack and laid it on the grass beside him. He could now see both riders through the foliage and heard the sound of approaching wheels; a light carriage slowed as it climbed the slope. He gripped his sword and crept forwards to get a good view of the road.
A wild shout rang out and the two highwaymen barged into the path of the carriage. The driver, a middle-aged man, was flung forward across the front of the phaeton as it juddered to stop. His hat and dress wig fell off as he regained his seat. Catching his balance quickly, he examined the bandits from his perch.
‘What? No “stand and deliver”? Such poor thieves!’
His banter fed the dark man’s anger. He frowned and his eyes narrowed.
‘Enough of your humour; get down!’
His pistol was rock steady in his gloved hand. The second horseman urged his horse round so he came to the side of the carriage with his back towards James. Slowly, the driver stepped down and stood defiantly before the robber, his face within a foot or so of the gun.
‘Tie him tight,’ said the dark man. ‘That’ll curb his tongue.’
The second man dismounted and approached their victim taking a cord from his saddlebag. James sprang from his hiding place and clubbed the nearest man with the hilt of his sword. The man went down without a sound.
The leader whirled his mount, firing as he turned. The shot went wide but the noise and flash of the powder stopped James in his tracks. The man aimed at the carriage driver but James pulled the man down as the shot was fired and it went over their heads. The dark man in the tricorn hat spat a curse – kicked the black horse and thundered down the hill, away like a thunderbolt in a whirl of dust.
Offering his arm to the man, James lifted him from the floor and stood back.
The man exclaimed, ‘My dear friend! You are a magician! Where did you spring from?’
The astonished look in his eyes made James smile.
‘I can assure you I am just a wanderer coming home and happened to be at hand when they struck.’
The warm handshake he offered assured the older man of his honesty.
‘God sent you home at the right moment then.’
The man laughed and retrieved his hat and wig from the dust.
He was a portly man of about fifty and wore his age well. His round face and figure spoke of his comfortable life and his satin surcoat and breeches displayed his wealth.
Lifting his reclaimed hat, he bowed.
‘I am Sir Edward Mallow and I live nearby. Who, Sir, are you?’
James introduced himself and briefly explained his journey.
‘Will you oblige me by seeing me home? And perhaps I shall need some help with this scamp.’
He nodded in the direction of the second horseman who began to stir. They bound the man with his own rope and put him up on his horse. James tied the animal to the backboard and they moved off. Along the way, Sir Edward said he had been to Bridport. James felt it impertinent to enquire further and simply made small talk as they trotted on. He was in no hurry to reach the farm and his father had no idea when he would return.
The journey took about thirty minutes, and then they passed through ornate iron gates. The gatekeeper came bustling out nodding his head to the Baronet and taking over the horseman.
‘Lock him up tight. I shall deal with him in the morning.’
They moved up the drive into the forecourt of a mellow stone house. A manservant came forward to take the reins and James was ushered into the marble tiled hall.
‘Papa! You are terribly late, where were you? We were alarmed!’
A pretty girl of about eighteen stood at the bottom of the staircase and berated the older man before regarding the dusty figure beside him.
‘My Dear, let me catch m’breath before you beat me for my sins! This is Mr James McNair. He saved m’life just an hour ago and we have a tale to tell you.’
The girl was dressed in a light blue summer dress which matched her eyes. James was entranced. He smiled and bowed deeply, taking in the shining hair and perfect blush which tinted her cheeks as she rounded on her father.
She, in her turn, gave him the merest shadow of a curtsey and took her father’s arm, leading him into the next room.
‘Will you lunch with us?’ she said over her shoulder and marched on without waiting for his reply.
James followed willingly into the dining room to find a group of eight guests already seated at a long table. Servants stood behind each chair and a steward bustled, laying an extra place.
‘I have the great pleasure to bring my saviour to the table,’ said the Baronet. ‘His dusty suit and my crumpled appearance are to be excused.’
With not a whit of embarrassment, he pulled off his travel jacket and indicated to James to do the same. Then he gestured for a napkin and a bowl of water and washed the dust from his face and hands. James followed suit and the meal began. The attentions of the man servant behind his chair were unsettling at first, but hunger and the excitement of the day gradually overcame his reticence. Oysters followed by guinea fowl; then a rabbit stew with prunes and apricots, seemed to be the “usual” lunch party. James began to realize the gentry lived a different life. Even the ceremonial feasts aboard the Admiral’s flagship could not compare with the spread laid out here. He decided he would need to curb his thirst if he was to get home safely.
After a short hushed silence, the guests at the table adjusted to the extraordinary arrivals and conversation began again.
‘There must be a good tale behind this exciting entrance!’
A tall, elegant man, who sat next to the pretty daughter, eyed James with glass on a ribbon. His fine-boned face with a well-coifed hair was a world away from James’s rough and ready figure.
‘Surely there is!’ shouted Sir Edward. ‘And here it is!’
The guests had no choice but to listen as the baronet described every detail of the skirmish in extravagant colour.
Others around the table joined in the general congratulations but James noticed Sir Edward’s daughter Anne kept silent, as did the elegant beau, although she occasionally glanced at him but looked away when he returned her gaze. The dandy stared at James but said nothing.
After the meal, a young man introduced himself.
‘Let me congratulate you too. I’m Sib Smith and I live nearby.’
It was a relief to talk with another young man at this somewhat stiff social occasion.
‘I don’t feel I am very welcome, Miss Mallow seems aloof and the beau looks down his nose at me!’
Sib Smith laughed and took his arm. ‘Come outside and try one of the old Squire’s cigarillos. He gets them from France, apparently.’
Sib Smith was a good-looking young man, a little shorter than his new companion but his engaging smile and easy manner had won him many friends in county society. Coupled to the fact that he was one of the wealthiest bachelors in Dorset, he never lacked for admirers among the daughters of landowning families in the West Country. Some mothers said he had “fast ways” by which they meant he spent too much time gambling and racing, but no one else complained.
They walked out onto the terrace through the French windows and sat together on a bench some yards from the dining room. A servant brought cigars and a taper and they settled back to enjoy a smoke.
‘Pay attention, if I was you, to Beautiful Bob.’
Sib indicated the beau with the eyeglass parading with Anne Mallow.
‘He’s a strange fellow and seems to have more influence with Mallow than he should.’
‘What do you mean?’
Sib glanced round as if checking no one was in earshot.
‘Some say he is in with a dangerous crowd. He lived in France for a time and came back when the peace was signed.’
James told him he was ‘on the beach’ through the same event. ‘Who knows what will happen?’ said James. ‘Peace is a fragile thing. For my part, I would wish to get back to my ship.’
They moved on and soon ‘Mr McNair’ was being congratulated by most of the company. He took an opportunity to catch Anne as she came by walking with her father.
‘May I make my apologies to you both, but I must make my way home now.’
She looked him directly in the eye for the first time and smiled. He felt as if he had been struck with a blow. Her eyes were so blue and lucid. He stumbled over his words and seemed a complete fool as he stammered his goodbye. Her father noticed nothing. ‘I’ll get my man to drive you home.’ He turned to call a groom.
Before a man could be summoned, the elegant man – the Beautiful Bob – approached and smiled at the two of them.
‘See here, I am off and will drive our gallant sailor home. It’s not far and he deserves it.’
He waved down any protest and called for his carriage, a light, yellow curricle drawn by a matched pair of chestnut horses.
James collected his roll-bag and sword and mounted beside him. They moved off briskly. He had no time to speak again to Anne or to take leave of the rest of the party.
They were out of sight in two seconds. After a minute, they slowed to a trot and the man turned to him.
‘We were never introduced properly. I am Robert Calvert and I live at Mauleverer.’
Calvert pronounced his name in the continental style but James simply nodded by way of acknowledgement. He knew the name and the village about ten miles away from the farm. There was an ancient castle there.
‘Since you’re, as you say, “on the beach,” perhaps you would consider a little commission for Sir Edward and me? It might be interesting.’
James smiled and indicated he was on his way home and had not given thought to any enterprise as yet.
‘Meet me at Mauleverer in a week’s time and we can talk again. I know Sir Edward would value your help and so would I.’
James agreed to do so, if convenient, and jumped off at the turning leading to the farm. Calvert waved and set off at a brisk clip. James gave little thought to the invitation.... But he did reflect that Calvert was tougher than he appeared and hid it well behind a mask of foppery.